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CD Feature/ Peteris Vasks: "Pater Noster"

img  Tobias
Is programmatic music dead? After art has supposedly dealt with all the major issues of humanity, it seemed logical for composers to concentrate on refining the details and polishing their technique. For Peteris Vasks, things are just the other way around: „Already for some time to me it has been not so much about how you say [something] but rather what you say.“ Or, to quote from his biography: „Each of his works is a 'message'“. On „Pater Noster“, this concept comes to a climax and a conceptual conclusion.

Even though the „message“ of the three pieces on this album is purposely universal, it is the result of a highly personal quest for Vasks. „Pater Noster“ documents the gradual growth of confidence in his abilities to write religious music (in clear contrast to „spiritual“ music, which has been his domain since he first started scoring), the historic changes in his homecountry Lithuania as well as the close role his father, who was a cleric and a minister, played in this context.

During the years that his father urged him to write sacred music, Vasks considered it of lesser interest for his oeuvre. And when the old regime fell and religion became increasingly popular among his colleagues, he did not want to participate in the sell-out. Only in 1991 did he finish his „Te Deum“ and the title piece to this CD – by this time, his father had already died. To the day, the breaks between his sacred works have remained long and they are still mere islands in his prolific list of compositions. Still, if you want to find out what Vasks is all about as a composer today, you will have to listen to them.

And to sum up Vasks’ style, two terms are all one needs: Strings and strikingly simple structures. „Pater Noster“ especially is a fluent, linear and non-repetitive chord scheme with almost trivial progressions, only occasionally broken up by delicately detached twists towards the end of a phrase, gently fleeing resolution. The „Dona Nobis Pacem“ is darker, an imploring prayer of fourteen minutes, full of voices spiralling upwards and downwards as if caught in constant uncertainty. Its lyrics are made up of „only three words, but do we even need more?“ according to Peteris Vasks.

In the „Missa“ he concentrates on the same instrumentation, but creates a richer and less claustrophobic sound compared to the „Donna Nobis Pacem“. It is a much more polychromatic work compared to the previous pieces, which remain closely attached to a single root mood. Here, Vasks has ample chance to demonstrate his abilites as an orchestrator and a sound artist: From the uplifting and hopeful escalation of the „Benedictus“ to the dramatic outcries of the „Gloria“, the „Missa“ encapsulates a wide panopticum of styles and ambiances.

There is an immediate sacred message in all of these movements, which Vasks describes as an attempt to „reflect the human spiritual dimension and live within it“. Through his work, therefore, the listener should discover himself as a physical and metaphysical being. On the other hand, however, a natural dichotomy is inherent to his style and approach.

By reducing the complexity of his music, its core may become more obvious. On the other hand, it feeds from the same pool of expressions and harmonies it is purposely trying to step out of. Or to put it differently: If everyone can understand the message right away, it may not be universal, but either trivial or none at all.

Which is why, despite his claim to the contrary, the „how“ is not that unimportant in the work of Peteris Vasks after all. The simplicity of his scales is offset by the intricacy of his arrangements, the subtlety of his dynamics, the intensity of his timbres and the power of his melodies. In the wordless abstractions of his metaphors, the „message“ looses itself more and more as a fixed idea and transcendends into a feeling which can only be described by intuition. That, of course, is the ideal all programmatic music is looking for.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ondine Records

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